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Ethiopia is a strong U.S. ally and a regional power in east Africa. Over the last decade, it has pulled millions up from poverty through a combination of economic growth and foreign development assistance. But the country’s ruling party, led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, has also brutally suppressed dissent by jailing journalists and political rivals. Now rumors that Meles is in failing health are ratcheting up tensions. We explore the situation in Ethiopia.
- David Shinn Former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia; Co-Editor of "The Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia"; and Adjunct Professor, Elliot School of International Affairs, George Washington University
- Tamerat Negara Editor, Addis Neger
- Beyene Petros Ethiopian opposition leader; Professor of Biology, Addis Ababa University
- Mekonnen Kassa Ethiopian-American activist; former Chair, EPRDF Support Forum
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the Republican ticket is set in advance of the Republican National Convention, we'll get a local view from host city Tampa.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, Ethiopia at a crossroads. Under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, this large east African country has been held up as an economic success story and a lynchpin of U.S. policy in Africa receiving billions in development dollars and hosting American drone bases. But if Ethiopia has become indispensable to American foreign policy, its brutal treatment of opposition leaders and media has also made it something of a pariah to human rights groups and the Ethiopian community abroad.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINow news reports indicate that the prime minister is gravely ill receiving medical treatment in Belgium and many people are wondering what will come next. Joining us in studio to talk about this is David Shinn. He's a former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia and Co-Editor of "The Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia." He's also a professor in the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Mr. Ambassador, good to see you again.
MR. DAVID SHINNThank you, Kojo, good to be here.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Tamrat Negara, he is Editor of Addis Neger, an independent Ethiopia media outlet. In 2009, Tamrat fled Ethiopia and sought asylum in the U.S. Thank you for joining us.
MR. TAMRAT NEGARAThank you very much for letting me come in today.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Is Ethiopia at a crossroads? What in your view should be taking place there? 800-433-8850, David Shinn, I'll start with you. There's something, I guess, unseemly about public death watches, but over the last few weeks, there has been rampant speculation about the health of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
NNAMDIYou obviously have no unique insight into his health or the planning, but can you give us a sense of where things stand and the open questions that this raises?
SHINNWell, you're right on one point. I certainly don't know what his health situation is. I've heard all of the rumors and they're rampant, particularly in the Amharic community, but it's very clear that there is a health issue, of that there is no doubt. And it's probably fairly serious for the simple fact that the prime minister has not been heard from at all in the past month and this does raise a lot of questions.
SHINNIt's not particularly unusual in the Ethiopian context for lacking transparency on these kinds of issues. They're not culturally good at being transparent when it comes to issues of illness. So that may be a surprise to Westerners but I doubt if it's too much of a surprise to Ethiopians. But it raises a lot of questions about the future and where the governance goes from here in Ethiopia.
NNAMDITamrat Negara, Ethiopia has always been something of a paradox under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a country that is seen in two distinctly different lights. On the one hand you've got this story of economic success and a story of a true regional powerhouse. On the other we have a government that has often resorted to extreme brutality against opposition figures and against media outlets. To what extent is the fate of this country intertwined with the health of its leader?
NEGARAIt doesn't have any relevance to the health of the prime minister. Ambassador Shinn said that it's not a surprise for us because historically many leaders have almost led their country even in (word?) without the public knowing or having a concern.
NEGARAEmperor Menelik, there's a legend, ruled about to three to five years after he died because the people in the court kept it a secret and still managed to lead the country. This is because the country has built strong institutions no matter how oppressive they are. So even if Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is currently dead or alive, in some sense it doesn't matter because the institutions will run functionally very, very well.
NNAMDIAnd whether or not he is alive or dead, you think that those institutions under his government will continue to function in the way they have been functioning?
NEGARATrue because the elite around Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the ruling party around Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, have been ruling the country very strong and those institutions have been functioning very well. This is one of the reasons Western countries prefer Ethiopia as an ally because there is a strong history of institutionalization.
NEGARAYes, there will be a transition parachallenge, especially after, in the mid-term. In the immediate term, I don't see a challenge. In the transition period, we will see some challenge, probably a power conflict when -- after a singular leader emerges. We've seen that during the fall of the Emperor. After the fall of the Emperor, the Dergue came, which is a complete collection of military leaders.
NEGARABut once (word?) came out, there was a serious struggle within the military and outside the military, but once a leader emerges, 25 years.
NNAMDIWe're operating on the assumption that Meles Zenawi is gravely ill.
NEGARAI would say we are starting the discourse of post-Meles Zenawi Ethiopia, whether ill or not.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, you can call us at 800-433-8850, if you'd like to join this conversation. David Shinn, Ethiopia has the fortune or misfortune of being located in a very unstable corner of Africa and the Middle East. Why is it so important to the U.S.?
SHINNIt's important for historical reasons. The United States has had a very close relationship with all Ethiopian governments, with the exception for a period of time of the Mengistu government, since the end of World War II.
SHINNIt's also important because of the sheer size of Ethiopia. It's the second-most populous country in Africa, probably tied with Egypt for second-most populous. And it's one that -- it's a country that particularly under the current leadership has been very instrumental in helping the United States carry out some of its policies in the region dealing with counter-terrorism and dealing with regional security.
SHINNAnd Ethiopia, under the current government, has been a very frequent contributor to U.N. Peacekeeping operations for example. It's also been very helpful in the efforts to combat terrorism in the region.
NNAMDITamrat, Ethiopia has also adopted a pretty skilled approach to international affairs, putting itself in the position of being, well, indispensable. You say that this is actually something that the country has done very effectively for centuries. Can you please explain?
NEGARAYes, for 200 years after the 14th century, we had a period of solitude, absolute solitude, but exclusive policy. But after that, especially modern Ethiopia, after Emperor Menelik, we've had leaders who recognized that establishing foreign power, relationships with foreign power is instrumental even in maintaining your own power locally. So those, Emperor Menelik, Emperor Haile Selassie with the Western leaders. Mengistu, if not with America, was USSR and now Meles Zenawi was USA.
NEGARAThis is a continuous tradition, the institutional tradition. The funny thing is Meles Zenawi was a Maoist-Marxist at one time and now he is the best friend of America.
NNAMDIMengistu had a similar transition, did he not?
NEGARAExactly, Mengistu was a former American ally. You know, he studied in America, but he changed his color to the Reds when things didn't work out the way he wanted or for local reasons. So I don't give any particular emphasis for skill of Meles, it is just that Ethiopia has a geographic advantage and any leader that comes, even hereafter would find working with the U.S. inevitable.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, I will start with Unatan in Tacoma Park, Md. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
UNATANYes, sir, thank you for taking my call. My question is for the Ambassador. Mr. Ambassador, now that there is some uncertainty with regarding the prime minister's health, to what extent do you think Ethiopia will leave the neighboring countries alone? Because it has been involved in military adventures in Somalia, Eritrea as well as Sudan.
UNATANSo do you think the fact that there's going to be some uncertainty that it will be forced to turn inwards and leave the neighboring countries alone? That's my first question. The second question is...
NNAMDIWell, let's take one at a time.
SHINNSure, happy to respond to that. I think that there will be a tendency in a post-Meles period, assuming that, in fact, there is going to be soon a post-Meles period. There certainly will be no later than 2015, but it may happen sooner. There will be a tendency to look inward to a greater extent than with the Meles in charge.
SHINNHaving said that, in the case of Sudan where I think there will be some turning away from. basically South Sudan and Sudan have solicited the support of the government and Ethiopia to be helpful in resolving problems between the two countries. So I wouldn't suggest that Ethiopia has interfered in Sudan and South Sudan, at least not in recent years.
SHINNSomalia is a totally different situation and there it will be interesting to see what policy Ethiopia follows because the situation in Somalia is so inter-linked with that in the Ogaden which is an internal issue in Ethiopia. There frankly may not be much change in policy in a post-Meles period.
SHINNSo I think you're going to have a mixed bag, a certain tendency to draw inwards, but with the necessity of still maintaining a fairly significant engagement in places like Somalia.
NNAMDIUnatan, you had a second question?
UNATANYeah, actually, but you didn't address the...
NNAMDIWell, we can't have both because we have a lot of callers waiting.
UNATANNo, no, no there was one question that he didn't answer. How about -- you addressed Ethiopia's maybe outlook towards Somalia and Sudan, but how about Eritrea? Ethiopia was recently involved in a military adventure against Eritrea, which was not condoned by the international community. It violates Etritea's territorial...
NNAMDIOf course, there are large populations of Eritreans and Ethiopians here in the Washington area and I know Tamrat Negara would like to address that issue also.
NEGARAThe Eritrean question is a mixed bag. It depends on what kind of leadership that would follow Meles Zenawi. He could -- the leadership could decide to retreat and look inward, but at the same time, we have to know that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi lost a lot of constituents in Ethiopia for not finishing the second war into its ultimate goal of overriding Asmara and controlling back.
NNAMDIThat's the capital of Eritrea?
NEGARAEritrea, yes, so if we find a leadership which wants to get its legitimacy by becoming belligerent towards Eritrea, you could find another very, very serious situation. This is a possibility. I'm not endorsing it or saying it's certain.
NNAMDIUnatan, thank you for your call. David Shinn, do you care to respond?
SHINNI would only add that I don't frankly foresee much change in Ethiopian policy towards Eritrea in a post-Meles situation. I think that the political dynamics in Ethiopia are relatively united on dealing with Eritrea and whether Meles is in charge or someone totally new is in charge, even someone from the political opposition, I just don't see much change in the attitude towards Eritrea.
NNAMDITamrat, this regime has often been criticized for harassing and jailing journalists who wrote critically about it. Last month, an Ethiopian court sentenced an independent journalist named, I think, Eskinder Nega, to 18 years in prison for allegedly, quoting here, "attempting to incite violence and overthrow the constitutional order." Nega had deep routes to the Washington region having graduated from this -- from American University and having secured a green card but he chose to stay in Addis. Tell us a little bit about him.
NEGARAEskinder is one of those historical figures I guess, not just -- or individuals ordinarily. I'm proud to have known him. I've not worked with him, but have had a good debate about him about Ethiopia or other issues. On the same charge that he was accused for 18 years, two of my editors on the same newspaper I worked with, Abiye Teklemariam and Mesfin Negash have been charged in absentia for eight years. So it was a wide range charge.
NNAMDIYou were the editor of Addis Neger when it was an independent newspaper in the capital of Addis Ababa, but you sought asylum in the United States in 2009. How have you stayed in touch with what's happening on the ground there?
NEGARAIt was a challenge to go back to Eskinder Nega discussion. Emails, Facebook and phone calls have helped and Ethiopian people who travel daily have helped. But with Eskinder, one of the debates we had was whether we were supposed to leave or not. It was very intense. He chose -- he knew what kind of challenge we had, but he chose to remain behind. And I -- it's a very tough choice and I regard him highly for that.
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. When we get back, we will continue our conversation about what's next for Ethiopia given the speculation about the health or lack thereof of its prime minister Meles Zenawi. You can call us, 800-433-8850. If the lines are busy, send us a Tweet at kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing Ethiopia may be at a crossroads with David Shinn, former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia and co-editor of "The Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia." He's also professor in the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University. And Tamrat Negara, who is the editor of Addis Neger, an independent Ethiopian media outlet. In 2009, Tamrat fled Ethiopia and sought asylum in the United States. We're seeking your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIWhether it is fair or not many Americans probably still think of Ethiopia through the lens of the 1980s when it was racked by draught and famine. But the country's economy has apparently been booming over the last decade. What is behind that growth? What kind of economic progress has Ethiopia made over the past decade? I'll start with you this time, Tamrat.
NEGARAThat is one of the most successful mirage Prime Minister Meles created, that Ethiopia is a development state or a developing state. The numbers are very, very questionable. Especially professors -- prominent economic professors at Oxford and New York University have now shown how the numbers can be questioned. Let's leave at that, but even what follows is if we are talking about economy growth, let's talk about the growth of 21 years. Let's talk about the comprehensive -- the whole years of 21 years.
NEGARAAnd in that what you find is taking into account the population growth, which is 2.5 every year, the total development you get -- the real growth you get is 1.5. It -- Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says -- or the Ethiopian governments keep saying that the growth is 9 percent. But actually that growth is what happened in the past five or six years, not the 21 years. In the 21 years that development get is 1.5 percent and that is very sad number for a country that has been getting aid in billions in 20 years.
NEGARAAnd the other thing, what you have to account is development that comes through aid is not necessarily wrong. Many nations have had that, but it has to be sustainable. What we want is a sustainable growth. To have a sustainable growth you have to have private sector growth, innovation and quality of education.
NNAMDIWell, a lot of the neighbors of Ethiopia have gotten a lot of development aid over the years also and nothing to show for it. David Shinn, how would you characterize the economical growth of Ethiopia, especially over the last eight years or so?
SHINNYou know, this is an issue where I might differ a little bit with Tamrat. If you -- the figures on GDP growth rate are fuzzy. It's clear that the government figures are higher than where you will hear just about anywhere else. But at the same time the International Monetary Fund has concluded that between 2005 and 2010 the GDP growth rate has been somewhere between 7 and 8 percent. That's lower than the government figures but that's a pretty impressive growth rate if you accept the IMF numbers.
SHINNIf you compare it with what is going on in other countries around the region, actually Sudan did fairly well for a period, but Sudan had enormous oil exports which accounts for most of their growth rate. Growth is slowing down significantly in Sudan and it's really not gotten off the ground at all in South Sudan. Eretria has not had very impressive growth rates recently and of course Somalia has been essentially a basket case. Kenya has done modestly well.
SHINNSo by comparison, Ethiopia has done pretty well on the economic side. The real question, though, the bottom line is you have to ask the Ethiopian people, particularly the peasants out in the field, are you better off today than you were in 1991? And I don't know the answer to that question. Inflation has been a very serious problem. It's gone up. But you really would need to poll the people and ask them.
NNAMDIWell, Tamrat, many members of the Ethiopian Diaspora have been in this country for decades. And I remember the first time you were on this broadcast, you told us about the differences between the way they view Ethiopian politics and the way people who are actually living in Ethiopia view it. Now that you've been here for three years, can you update us on that? Have your views changed?
NEGARAI have become sympathetic through them rather than my views change. I have seen how anger developed since I do. After being expelled how you miss your home, your family, your roots, your land and everything. But still my view is that fairly the past definitive two decades of my life were under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. So I can see or accept what has changed.
NEGARAFor most people who've come here earlier than the past 20 years, it is even harder to accept the basic realities of current Ethiopia. That's the major challenge. For instance, we have accepted -- most of us in my generation have accepted was the reality of Eritrea being a different nation, a different state. We don't know in what form the relationship could continue it after but for so many people, older generation to assume Eritrea as a nation is still difficult among -- I'm just giving you one of the topics that could be very toxic.
NNAMDIWell, let's talk with someone who actually lives in Ethiopia because joining us now is Beyene Petros. He is a member of the Ethiopian House of Representatives and a Chairman of the major opposition group known as Medrek. He's also a professor of biology at Addis Ababa University. Beyene Petros, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. BEYENE PETROSThank you very much for having me, but I think you need to correct one thing. I'm not currently member of House of Representatives. I used to be.
NNAMDIFormer member of the Ethiopian House of Representatives. You have -- as I mentioned, you have actually served as an elected leader in Ethiopia when the Dergue, the former military dictatorship, fell. But today you are one of the major leaders in the opposition. Where, in your view, do things stand right now in Ethiopia?
PETROSOkay. I'm, as you said, with the major opposition Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum, the Medrek for short. Things in Ethiopia -- as far as, you know, my understanding of the facts on the ground are concerned are the same and I don't see much change. I hope you're implying that the prime minister is not in duty and health implying that there may have been some changes, characteristic of his, you know, his existence and active duty.
PETROSOtherwise things -- the succession has been bad for the last 20 or so years, as far as democratization, human rights, the rule of law, good governments and also the economic quagmire that our people has been suffering from, and the rampant corruption that is characteristic of the Ethiopian government for the last 20 or so years. So I don't see any, you know, thing that has changed over the last one month or so, if you are implying that.
NNAMDIWhat brings you to Washington right now?
PETROSWell, I'm in the downtown Silver Spring area and currently I don't know -- if you're asking me what the purpose of my visit is...
NNAMDIYes, that's my question. Sorry if I phrased it badly.
PETROSRight. Again, I'm, you know, as the leader of the major opposition in Ethiopia, I'm making the necessary contacts in the Diaspora. I'm also making diplomatic contacts both with the State Department and also with another group of people that influences policy on matters Ethiopian. And also visiting immediate family and friends. That's what I've been doing over the last two weeks or so.
NNAMDICan you explain for the benefit of our listening audience, Tamrat Negara, exactly how Beyene Petros plays in the politics of Ethiopia right now and the significance of his visit here?
NEGARABeyene Petros is one of the highly regarded opposition leaders we have produced in the past 20 years. It's amazing that he haven't been frustrated among the things he have seen and suffered. I've had the privilege of knowing him and working, not side by side, but in a different organization. And he's one of the most courageous people you can find in the country.
NEGARABut apart saying that his visit signals for me, as far as I'm concerned, a post-Meles Zenawi move, I think America is thinking -- or the Western nations are actually thinking post Meles Zenawi and they're trying to engage the opposition. But I think it is too late too little as far as -- I think -- because the opposition locally is not empowered to dictate what is going on.
NNAMDIYou're thinking on the same issue, David Shinn?
SHINNThe question is to whether it's too late -- too little too late for the political opposition in Ethiopia is an interesting one and I'm not quite sure where I come out on that. I have had a long personal relationship with Beyene Petros going back to 1995. And certainly the U.S. government has been in contact with Beyene and people like him in Ethiopia, even predating 1995.
SHINNSo it's not as though there's no contact with opposition elements in Ethiopia. The issue is what is the future of the opposition and how much leeway will it be given in terms of a post-Meles situation. And I don't think anyone knows the answer to that question right now. It basically requires a more level political playing field in the country and that's what I think all of us has been hoping for for a long period of time. And we saw that happen in 2005 and then that was pretty much the end of it.
NNAMDIBeyene Petros, thank you very much for joining us. And...
PETROSI think what (unintelligible) was saying was simply out of touch. You know, I'm not invited or I don't have any official engagement, you know, to imply that my presence here or the presence of any other opposition member has anything to do with the post-Meles, you know, scenario is simply unfounded. And the Diaspora seems to be reading too much into, you know, the situation which is probably irrelevant and needs to be corrected.
NNAMDIOkay. Well, thank you very much for correcting it. Beyene Petros is a former member of the Ethiopian House of Representatives and the chairman of a major opposition group known as Medrek. He's also professor of biology and Addis Ababa University. Thank you so much for joining us.
PETROSThank you very much for (unintelligible) .
NNAMDIAlso joining us now by phone is Mekonnen Kassa. He is an Ethiopian American community activist in Seattle, Washington, former chair of the EPRDF Support Forum, a worldwide organization that supports the ruling party of prime minister Meles Zenawi. Mekonnen Kassa, thank you for joining us.
MR. MEKONNEN KASSAThank you, Kojo, for giving me the opportunity. I appreciate it.
NNAMDIAt the top of the broadcast we noted that many members of the Ethiopian Diaspora are very critical of the government, but this is not a monolithic community. You've been in this country since 1988. You are a supporter of the government. Can you tell us a little bit about how you are viewing these open questions about the health of the prime minister?
KASSAAgain, thank you, Kojo. You're well aware the minority (unintelligible) position in Washington D.C. has been dominant in the political situation as far as Ethiopia is concerned and they have been drowning us out. But after the 2005 election we've been organizing and coming out in full force and making our opinions heard. So the political dynamics in the Ethiopian Diaspora community is definitely changing and changing for good. Having said that, also we appreciate you for bringing us in and giving us the opportunity to share our opinion in regards to our support through the current Ethiopian government and the government party.
KASSAAs far as the health of our prime minister is concerned, he is doing well and you may have read the communication minister has already given repeated press releases. And three days ago, he has confirmed, confidentially I might add, that the prime minister will be back in office working full time before the Ethiopian new year that usually happens between September 11 and September 12 or right around there.
NNAMDIWell, I guess above and beyond the health of the prime minister we have heard from some of the more strident members of the Diaspora who may be sometimes guilty of vilifying the prime minister to the point of making him a caricature and unwilling maybe to acknowledge some of the achievements of this government. But many supporters of this government it would appear have a tendency to dismiss the questions about the government's human rights record. Do you acknowledge that these questions are in fact legitimate?
KASSAWell, some of the questions are legitimate, Kojo, but the problem is what you just described, that the so-called opposition, sometimes it's even difficult to characterize them as opposition because they are none of that. But there are some legitimate questions around those issues, but those issues are not because of government policy or deliberate action by the government. The government has laid out the policy that is incompatible with the worldwide accepted human rights policies.
KASSAUnfortunately, when you go down further the command chain, especially at local level there might be some people that are a little bit more impatient or a little bit harsh on the opposition.
NNAMDIWell, you know, when we read news about an 18-year prison sentence for a journalist it certainly raises eyebrows here, not only in the community at large but among those of use in the media in particular, what do you say about an incident like that?
KASSAIt certainly does, Kojo, but what we have to look at is, as you just described earlier in the program, that's a very rough neighborhood. I mean, we have seen in America right after the 2000 -- unfortunately, in September, 2001, America drafted the Patriot Act policy and we were all apprehensive about that, right. But when governments are operating in a tough neighborhood, and when you have terrorists planting, and you have bombing public transportation and institutions like that, definitely you have to come up with a policy that could be counteractive -- that's designed to counter act those kinds of activities.
KASSAUnfortunately, this kind of journalist, those who claim to be independent are not necessarily independent, and sometimes are in cahoots with some of these organizations that the government has labeled to be terrorist. So I think it is incumbent upon these so-called independent journalists to respect the law of the land and operate within it. As long as they to that, and especially if they have a problem with the law, work within it, engage the system and work within it to change it instead of trying to collaborate and then be in cahoots with them and that have been labeled to be a terrorist organization.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have for the time being. Mekonnen Kassa is an Ethiopian-American community activist in Seattle, Washington. He's the former chair of the EPRDF Support Forum, a worldwide organization that supports the ruling party in Ethiopia. Tamrat Negara is editor of Addis Neger, and independent Ethiopian media outlet. In 2009 he fled Ethiopia and sought asylum in the U.S., and David Shinn is former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and co-editor of the Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia. He's also professor in the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
NNAMDIObviously, gentlemen, this is a conversation that is not yet finished. We hope to be talking to you all again, sometime in the near future about this. Going to take a short break. When we come back, the Republican ticket is set in advance of the Republican National Convention. We'll be a getting a local view from the host city, Tampa. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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